Monday 5 December 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Geoffrey Bocca’s The Secret Army (1968)

The post-World War era of de-colonisation of African and Asian territories run by the European powers was a phenomenon filled with variant levels of political intrigue, social transformation, and inevitably bloodshed. 

The pre-war sentiments driving the various nationalist movements agitating for independence was given an added impetus by the diminishing capacities of the empires of France and Britain, both of which would yield to the demand by United States president Franklin D. Roosevelt that they break up their empires. The ‘Wind of Change’, to quote Harold MacMillan’s famous declaration of the early 1960s, would blow across both continents where a thirst for freedom and a belief in the right to self-determination took a firm hold.

The execution of this mass programme of constructing the birth of nations, while smooth in regard to some countries, was marked by a number of conflicts which dominated the world news.

A notable early example of a resulting violent cataclysm was the episode of Partition in India which led to the creation of Pakistan. Apparently smooth transfers in the Belgian Congo and Nigeria did not prevent future paroxysms of conflict that threatened the viability of both countries continuing as nation states. 

There were of course those countries which were earmarked for decolonisation before others. It was argued, with increasing frequency after wars broke out in the Congo and Nigeria, that the pace was too fast, that many of them were ‘not ready’ for self-government. 

Among the European nations, the Portuguese appeared to be unyielding in the demands that they set their African colonies free, and ensuing wars in Angola and Mozambique became emblems of the anti-colonial struggle set against the backdrop of a Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

While inter-ethnic rivalry between indigenous groups within the artificially constructed African nations formed a side of the equation, so too, in some instances, did the matter of the rights of European settler populations who sought special protections and even continued political and economic supremacy.

In the fevered analysis of European chauvinist and ‘white nationalist’ thinking, the ceding of power signaled the beginning of an unwelcome age marked by waning white domination over the black and brown peoples of the world.

While black majority rule came relatively quickly to Kenya, there would be longer waits for those in Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) and South Africa.

If with the passage of time, a tendency exists to view the war in Algeria as a ‘last stand’ of a white minority settler population against a non-white majority, it is a misreading of a vastly more complex state of affairs.

For one, the Pied Noirs, translated in English to mean ‘Black Foots’, were unlike the largely British descended Rhodesians or the historically autonomous Afrikaner community in South Africa. Many were of non-French stock being of Spanish, Italian and Maltese heritage, and while ahead of the Jewish and Moslem Algerians in the racial pecking order of colonial society, were considered according to author Geoffrey Bocca to be “Second Class Frenchmen.”

Also, the territory of Algeria was not a far away dominion which had traditions of self-rule, but was in fact ruled directly from France and indeed was considered a part of Metropolitan France. The prevailing attitude was that the Mediterranean sea separating France from Algeria was no different from the Seine dividing Paris; a mere geographic detail in other words.

‘The Secret Army’, a book by Geoffrey Bocca, was published in 1968 only a few years after the end of a short but particularly vicious underground war which followed on from events that divided France. The Secret Army was in fact the Organisation de l’Armee Secrete (O.A.S.), which consisted of renegade personnel of the French army as well as civilians dedicated to keeping Algeria French.

Just how this state of affairs came about, one involving the waging of a clandestine war against the French state marked by acts of terrorism and the assassination of some officials as well as the attempts made on the life of the head of state, Charles de Gaulle, bears some recounting.

The Algerian war of independence commenced in 1954 after attacks initiated by Muslim insurrectionists belonging to the National Liberation Front (F.L.N.). The French army, though defeated in Indo-China, was battled hardened and up to the task. They took on the insurgents in a campaign marked by a great deal of brutality and in essence had pacified Algeria by the time the O.A.S. came into being.

Agitation from military commanders in Algeria led to the fall of the French Fourth Republic in 1958, and the return to centre stage of Charles de Gaulle whose initial pledge to keep Algeria French was later reversed in favour of negotiations with the F.L.N. and a decision to grant Algeria independence.

It was thus with the sting of the ‘betrayal’ by de Gaulle that elements within the military based in Algeria decided in April of 1961 to stage a putsch, Putsch des Generaux. Led by Generals Salan, Zeller, Jouhaud and Challe, the coup initially suggested that France was poised for civil war. It fizzled out after a few days and out of its ashes, a group of officers and civilian cohorts banded together to form the O.A.S. Their slogan was L’Algeria est Francaise et le restera: Algeria is French and will remain so.

Although it is clear that officers from the French military rebelled against the constituted order, in the process throwing away career, pension rights, private interests and reputation, the reasons for voluntarily becoming outlaws in a proscribed body are not easily explained. Reasons for joining the OAS, as Bocca explained were “sometimes contradictory”.

For General Paul Gardy, the end of Algeria meant the end of the foreign legionnaires.”What else mattered?” he responded to Admiral Querville, a naval commander who was key in snuffing out the coup of April 1961 which Gardy had joined.  

The OAS were claimed to be fascists, but three of the four generals in the putsch, including the organisation’s nominal leader, Salan, were to the left of the political spectrum.  It was claimed to be racist, but included among its ranks were Arab Muslims. And Algerian Jews were among its most fanatical adherents.

That they considered themselves to be French patriots is certain enough although de Gaulle, somewhat predictably, in a speech after the Evian agreement referred to them as “Misguided chiefs and criminal adventurers”.

They were fighting a lost cause by the time it was created. And for a time, they fought, if not for an already elusive victory and the overthrow of the French republic, for a power vacuum which might have been achieved with the physical elimination of General de Gaulle.

Fractured between movements based in Madrid, Paris and Algiers, the O.A.S. faltered as its members differed on tactics. Many wanted de Gaulle dead, but General Salan did not. They divided in to those whom Bocca referred to as ‘mystics’ and others who he dubbed ‘pragmatists.’ Members, who had thrown away status, pension rights and peace of mind, sighed at the relative listlessness of the Pieds Noir who offered support only to a limit.

For a time though, particularly in Algiers and Oran, the O.A.S. reigned. They could pledge to strike at any time and place of their choosing and back it up. For instance, in ‘Operation Rock n’ Roll they detonated 120 bombs in Algiers while independence talks were going on. When de Gaulle sent in a specially created secret squad of security agents to purge the dissidents, the O.A.S. virtually wiped them out.

The Barbouzes, the Bearded Ones, were a kind of French Black and Tans but did not stand a chance due to O.A.S. infiltration of the civil society of Algeria. Also, thanks to the “sympathetic passivity” of the mainstream French army, which de Gaulle shrewdly did not instruct to initiate a mass crackdown because of doubts about its loyalty, the OAS survived and even thrived.

Bocca gets to the essence of the personalities, for he knew many of the participants personally and weaves a compelling tale of history and politics, of context and sub-texts. 

Among a cast of memorable characters ranging from Bobby Dovecar, the baby-faced Austrian executioner of the Foreign Legion to the O.A.S.’s ideologue and philosopher-in-chief, Jacques Susini, the stand out is the formidable and charismatic Roger Degueldre, an NCO who reached the rank of Lieutenant and who was de facto chief of operations.

His greatest success was possibly the annihilation of the Barbouzes, but in time he like Colonel Bastien-Thiry, who led the failed ambush of de Gaulle at Petit Clamart in August of 1962, would be captured and meet his death at a stake before a firing squad at the Fort D’Ivry barracks in a Parisian suburb.

The OAS infiltrators became infiltrated themselves. Ever the survivor, de Gaulle, his baraka an almost palpable hovering presence, eluded the secret army’s attempts to murder him. His escapes defied reason as did, from the perspective of the ‘wronged’ O.A.S. combatants and their sympathisers, his about turn on Algerian independence.

But there was no way forward after the Evian accord was given a ninety per cent approval in the referendum held in April 1962. Bocca, a writer par excellence in describing the post-Evian brake down in law and order in Algiers writes eloquently about the degeneration by referring to ”the scatterlings of every holocaust, who crawl out like roaches through the gaping holes of a collapsed civilization to rob the dead, ransack the dead, and dress in stolen finery.”

His book is a masterpiece of reportage, capturing a fascinating and tumultuous period in French history which goes far in explaining the extraordinary convergence of events and personalities in an evocative and revealing manner.

(c) Adeyinka Makinde (2011)

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